Selling Ourselves Short


From the New York Times: A 68-year-old woman was brought to the hospital with what appeared to be serum sickness, a rare and severe form of allergic reaction. One of the few things that causes it is penicillin, but the patient hadn’t been given penicillin. Her allergy to it was well known and she wasn’t being treated for infection in any case. She had all of the symptoms, but no apparent cause.

Her husband, however, was taking penicillin, and had done some injecting of his own the night before the problems started. The patient had shared the information about her husband’s prescription with the intern, but it was the patient rather than the doctor who finally put two and two together. The intern hadn’t even considered asking the critical questions, even though sexual transmission of allergens isn’t unknown. This woman was 68. Why would a 68-year-old woman be considered a case for sexually transmitted anything?

The usual assumed victims can be seen in any Axe commercial. For those who have managed to miss them, Axe is a line of heavily scented grooming products aimed, as far as I can tell, at the 13 – 17-year-old male, and the sales pitch is blatant to the point of farce. Hot women throw themselves on the hapless Axe-wearer or smear themselves on the pipes into which his shower water runs, driven into a sexual frenzy by the smell. Axe, apparently, can make an already attractive man into a real babe-magnet.

This is a far cry from a 68-year-old woman having an allergic reaction to her husband’s prescriptions. Even if we think of couples that age having sex, we don’t think of it as very good sex. “A wet noodle in a dry sock” is the usual characterization, last said to me by an under-thirty male who cringed at the thought of his future wet noodle-hood. We see the elderly not only as unattractive but as asexual, so when confronted with evidence that they’re no such thing, we’re shocked. In some cases, it doesn’t even register. The examples are dismissed as exceptions to the rule, rather than accepted as the rule itself.

The elderly aren’t the only population that raise eyebrows. Another recent Times article covered the first steps being taken toward trying to assist the mentally handicapped in creating and sustaining romantic relationships. This one is particularly touchy because the mentally handicapped are notoriously vulnerable to sexual abuse, but it’s also a population that is just as capable of sexual feeling and strong attachments as anyone else. It’s also a population that has been encouraged for the last few decades to live lives that are as independent as possible. If jobs and apartments are part of that, why not romance, too? Very slowly, their families and caregivers are helping them navigate the world of sex and relationships, breaking down this last barrier between the mentally handicapped and a full life.

While the rest of us bumble along, trying to navigate a maze of contradictory impulses, preconceived notions, and dubious parental examples, the mentally handicapped are given trained mentors and expert advice in everything from pleasing one’s partner and preventing pregnancy to coping with conflict and developing good communication.

Although most of us stumble through our romantic life struggling to learn what our parents couldn’t teach us, the mentally handicapped are getting the benefit of all of the research done on what holds marriages together and what tears them apart. The odds are probably more in their favor than in ours.

Which brings me back around to the elderly. One of the things that we assume about sex is that the peak is in the 16 – 25 year range, particularly for men. That’s the age at which the hormones are surging, the body is hardest, and the drive is strongest. Although the female peak was originally set at 40, most researchers acknowledged even then that this was probably more mental than physical. In terms of physical fitness and fertility, women peak at the same time that men do. Especially once the age of menopause and wobbly willies hits, sex just isn’t supposed to be on the cards.

We see this as common sense, but the actual research says something different. Chere Hite picked it up back in the 1970s and 80s, when she was working on the Hite Report on Male Sexuality. Older men reported more satisfactory sex lives pretty much across the boards. Yes, younger bodies had more urgency and hydraulic pressure, but a few older men admitted frankly that the easing on both actually made things better. There was less stress and more pleasure. They also wrote that time had given them a better understanding of their bodies and the bodies of their partners, which was a far greater factor in the enjoyment of sex than the harder, more frequent erections of youth.

Modern research is backing this up. The Pfizer Global Study of Sexual Attitudes and Behaviors may not have invented the wheel, but it did reconfirm its existence. The researchers, who interviewed 27,000 people in 29 countries found lots of sex in the 40 – 80 crowd, really good sex in most cases, especially in less male-dominated countries, in spite of having more physical problems It turns out that age isn’t nearly as much of a deterrent as we think, and there may even be some hidden advantages.

Age slows the reflexes down and brings with it issues like vaginal dryness and erectile dysfunction, but it also brings experience and creates perspective. Women don’t usually orgasm from penile thrusting. Men are highly divided on the subject of prostate massage. These facts of life eventually stop triggering tearful arguments and start becoming a matter of personal preference. With luck, we also develop some humility over time. Our own imperfect bodies make us more forgiving of the imperfect bodies of others. In some cases, of course, age brings bitterness and resentment, but if the results of this study and several others mean anything, we seem to handle it reasonably well, at least sexually. Sex, it seems, is a great deal more than the sum of our parts.

This is not what the Axe commercials tell us, but to be fair to Axe, they’re an extreme version of what we surround ourselves with every day. Even before we’re old enough to understand what sex is, we’re sold sex as a physical act, the meeting of body parts orchestrated in such a way as to result in maximum release. This is the idea, and anything less is bad sex.

Practical application of this attitude, though, pretty much guarantees bad sex. Of all possible human negotiations, sex is probably the most delicate and significant. Taking a mechanistic approach might get you through the first few nights, but everyone has a quirk or two here and there. At some point, communication is going to be necessary and so is tolerance. The alternative is likely to be anger and tears.

Of all the populations one would think of as sexy, the mentally handicapped and the elderly fall far to the bottom of the list, but from what I see here, they might have more going for them than the rest of us. The mentally handicapped are getting counseling and support in developing open communication and conflict resolution skills, which seems to cushion them from some of the cynicism and defensiveness that result from a history of repeated failures. This leaves them free to be loving to each other in ways that many of us without their intellectual handicaps cannot.

Meanwhile, the elderly, with their supposedly faulty equipment, seem to be having better sex than the rest of us. Certainly better than the young, but that’s not difficult to do. Youthful sex might look great in commercials, but it’s notorious for ignorance, misunderstandings and hurt feelings, which are far greater barriers to good sex than logistical problems.

What is sexy anyway? There seems to be a short answer and a long answer, and the short answer looks a lot like an Axe commercial, lean, hard bodies with perfect hydraulics. There’s an undeniable rush to that. But as I looked through pictures of couples with Down’s Syndrome doing things together and for each other, I felt no disgust at all. If anything, I was jealous. The article described small, honest kindnesses, exchanges of handmade cards or the tying of another’s shoes, a delicate form of foreplay that has gone militantly out of style. There was no other word for it but sexy.

It reminded me of a party I went to last winter where the median age must have been sixty. It was a Karneval celebration, a sort of German Mardi Gras, given by a local club, and there were costumes, music and, of course, dancing. The upright gyration version was interesting and so were the line dances, but most fun to watch were the couples who could really dance, the ones who knew each other and knew what they were doing. They were all older, and they were smooth and easy with each other, responding to cues unseen by those around them, the kind of dancing that is the result of long practice together. Here again, there was only one word to describe it: sexy.

I don’t begrudge anyone their hot babe/hot boi porn. After all, commercials feature the young and hard for a reason. We respond to it in an immediate and lustful way, an immediacy and lust the writers of these ads hope that we’ll transfer to the product. The thing I think we need to be careful of, though, is mistaking the sales pitch for real life. There’s sexy, but then there’s sexy, and I think we need we need to be careful not to lose sight of one in the dazzle of the other, especially since the dazzle is temporary. We may not all be mentally handicapped, but most of us will someday be old.

People who want to make money from sex will use dazzle to do it, because it’s an easy, universal sales pitch. We all have that knee-jerk response. We have to be careful, though, not to take the whole thing too seriously. Youthful sex is a bit like candy, sweet at first but not very nourishing, even sickening if indulged in too often over time. Other things are more nourishing and substantial, but those things are a harder, more complicated sell and when we ignore what isn’t sold to us, we run the risk of selling ourselves short. The real world is more complicated and far richer than that.


© 2006 Ann Regentin. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

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